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‘Space Corps’ — sorry, wrong answer

Yes, the United States faces many defense challenges in space, but no one has explained how creating another service branch — made up of existing Air Force organizations — will meet these challenges better than they do now.

U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber, F-35B stealth fighter

U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber, F-35B stealth fighter jets and South Korean F-15K fighter jets fly over the Korean Peninsula during a joint drills. Photo Credit: AP

A recent Harvard Business Review article on change was titled: “Are you solving the right problem?” Every organization trying to further its competitive edge needs to sort through that question before embarking on any major shift in direction or reorganization.

Today, many in Congress are pressuring the Pentagon to start a new Space Corps. But these lawmakers seem to have skipped over this critical question.

Yes, the United States faces many defense challenges in space, but no one has explained how creating another service branch — made up of existing Air Force organizations — will meet these challenges better than they do now.

Space Corps advocates argue that standing up a new service will solve three key problems: splintered command and control of U.S. space assets; insufficient focus on warfighting in space; and a lack of funding for these programs. Before trying to solve these problems, let’s look at what caused them.

Why is space command and control so splintered? Because it evolved slowly, then all at once.

The first satellites were launched in the 1950s. The slow growth and limited availability of those assets restricted their effect, making them little more than novelties for most combatants. That changed with Operation Desert Storm, when commanders realized that GPS and other space-based systems had become indispensable in modern, high-tech warfare. Suddenly, services and agencies raced to solidify their place in space without much in the way of guidance, direction or shaping from either Congress or the Pentagon.

The results were predictable. Today, 60 organizations govern space command and control. Eleven are charged with oversight, eight with acquisition. Six others define the requirements for space systems. And no single entity or individual is in charge of any of the three efforts, nor holds the reins for the lot.

Three of those 60 organizations belong to the Air Force. Each is aligned with and supports the goals of the Air Force Space Command. Command and control there is tight.

How about the lack of focus on space as a warfighting domain? Yes, the United States has been slow to think through the militarization of space. Perhaps that’s because we have so many essential assets in space that most have avoided the thought of a shooting war “up there.” We have too much to lose.

But that’s not to say no one has been focusing. The highest level of training for conflict in the Air Force takes place at the vaunted Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, just outside Las Vegas. The Space Division of that school has mastering warfighting in that domain since 1996.

As for funding, that has been and continues to be a serious problem. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have forced the services to make significant compromises. While funds were added to cover wartime fuel and munitions expenditures, they received no supplemental funding for recurring readiness training or the recapitalization of equipment.

For the Air Force, this has meant a precipitous drop in stateside training over the last 15 years — including token levels of flight time for fighter pilots. Recapitalization has slowed to the point where the average age of for manned aircraft is 36 years — the oldest in the history of the Air Force.

About the only Air Force mission area that hasn’t grown dangerously anemic over the last 15 years has been the Air Force Space Command. While funding shortfalls have left platforms and aircrews to wither on the vine, there have been no readiness cuts for space. And while still not ideal, the Air Force has recapitalized its space assets, adding more than 100 satellites since 2004.

Is there a problem with space-based command and control, warfighter footing, and funding for space assets? You bet, but not within the Air Force. They have their space act together — which is why it would be silly to remove that mission from this organization, turn it over to a new stand-alone service, and think you will fix things.

The real challenge lies with the 57 other space organizations. If Congress really wants to get serious about reorganizing national security space assets, then it would need to go big — consolidating all 60 space assets in one agency — or pony up the funds it will take to put our space program back in front of the others.

But the proposal now on the table would merely remove the highest performing space operations from their Mother Ship. And that kind of Space Corps is the wrong answer to the wrong problem.

John Venable, a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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